September 9, 2012
This is Pittsburgh food: On the cookie tables
This is the sixth “This Is Pittsburgh Food,” a series of stories and videos on local traditions by Gretchen McKay and videographer and photographer Steve Mellon.
When Cristina Lazzaro started planning her wedding to Brian Perris, her checklist included all the bridal basics: A stunning gown. A swanky dinner reception for 250 guests. A relaxing beach honeymoon. A tiered wedding cake from which the newlyweds would give each other bites in front of the oohing and aahing crowd.
And, of course, cookies. Lots and lots of cookies.
So many were piled high on the couple’s wedding cookie table — make that tables — that the sugary spread took up an entire room at Bella Sera, the Tuscan-inspired hall in Canonsburg where they held the reception last month. More than 6,000 cookies in all, if you were counting (and many were) and every one was homemade, thanks to a Herculean effort that took 21 family members several weeks, and untold amounts of sugar, butter and flour, to pull off.
Not that anyone was complaining.
“We made 100 trays for our last wedding, too,” notes Cristina’s mother, Maria Lazzaro, referring to her oldest daughter Rosanna’s wedding in 2010.
No one is really sure where, or how, the Pittsburgh cookie table tradition started. But the general consensus is that it’s a custom the region’s many Italian and Eastern European immigrants brought with them from their homelands. An elaborate wedding cake is expensive; homemade cookies not so much, especially when baking them is shared among the extended family. Mrs. Lazzaro, who at age 5 moved to the U.S. with her parents from the small town of Ateleta in Italy’s Abruzzo region, remembers how the aunts and cousins would bake up a storm before family celebrations and holidays such as Christmas. So as an adult, she continued the tradition with her own family.
“We try to keep up the old way, even though we’re here and not in the Old Country,” she says.
Today, the practice is so ingrained in Pittsburgh’s wedding culture that it crosses all ethnic and religious lines, with tins of homemade cookies sharing the spotlight with the wedding cake at even the ritziest weddings. Which isn’t to say cookie tables are unique to the area, or even Pennsylvania, for that matter. Parts of New York, West Virginia, Virginia, New Jersey and Ohio (especially Youngstown) all share some version of the wedding custom, according to local historians.
Pittsburghers, though, still claim it.
Treasured family recipes are a must on a traditional cookie table, so bright and early the Saturday morning before the wedding, Mrs. Lazzaro, her three daughters and a half-dozen relatives gather in her Ross kitchen to bake some favorites handed down over the generations. There’ll be cookies from both northern and southern Italy, because as the bride’s aunt Maria Tolomeo of Shaler explains, “Each region has a different tradition of cookies.”
So different, that the sisters-in-law can’t even tell you what each other’s specialties are called in Italian.
Mrs. Lazzaro’s mother, Giovanna Ricci, 85, who lives in Bloomfield and speaks with a lilting Italian accent, is tasked with making hundreds of snowflake-shape pizzelles at the dining room table. Nearby, the bride’s 9-year-old cousin Ilaria Lazzaro fiddles with a tray of sugary Pesche Dolci, cookies that look exactly like miniature peaches; outside on the patio, another cousin is frying a savory biscuit-like treat known as Gravioli in a large vat of oil set on a portable burner. Allowed to cool and dry until crunchy in a box lined with paper towels, they’ll be served as a bar nibble with wine before dinner.
Mrs. Tolomeo has the toughest cookie job, or at least the most intricate: crafting dozens of Nacatole, a traditional deep-fried Calabrian treat. After rolling a sweet yeast dough into long, thin ropes and cutting it into 18-inch lengths, she wraps each piece around a thin dowel and then up and down the sides, after which she carefully pinches the seams together. After the sweet is removed from the peg, she places it on a comb-like tool called a pettine to create the cookie’s characteristic “rifling.” Fried in oil, they’re crunchy, with just the slightest hint of her husband’s homemade red wine folded into each bite.
“It’s a labor of love,” says Mrs. Tolomeo, who will spend several hours kneading, rolling and wrapping the dough into crown-shaped biscuits. “Everyone makes them to show their love for the couple.”
The morning before the wedding, aunts and cousins meet at the Lazzaro’s house with their myriad offerings. There are so many boxes and wicker baskets of cookies, it takes five cars to transport them the half hour to the reception hall, where they’ll be stored until after the wedding.
Baking? That was easy, says Mrs. Lazzaro with a tired smile.
“This is the hard part. I just want to get them out of the house so we can relax and enjoy the party.”
Not to mention once again be able to prepare a proper meal for the family: With so many cookies taking up room in the fridge there’s been no “real” food for days.
At the reception after dinner, it takes three servers just about 15 minutes to unwrap and lay out the cookies after rolling them into the “cookie room” off the main hall on carts. To assure a big reveal, they keep the doors closed, and shoosh away the nosy people who try to sneak a peak. When the room finally opens up at around 8:30 p.m., there is a bit of a mad rush as the first guests file in.
Peanut Blossoms are always among the first cookies to disappear. So the Lazzaros have two varieties — a traditional cookie rolled in sugar and another dipped in coconut. There are also nut horns, Italian cupcakes, tarts and tassies, lady locks, Nonni’s pizzelles and countless butter, chocolate and sugar cookies.
Some of the cookies are eaten right away as dessert. But many dozens more are immediately packed into plastic boxes to be taken home for breakfast the next morning. This is one time you don’t have to be shy about being a bit of a cookie hog: When one guest tries to walk away with a half-full container, bridesmaid Angela Bucci sends her back to the table.
“There’s too much room on top,” she gently scolds her. “They have to be completely smashed in.”
As for how to assure you get your favorites in the race to the table?
“You run as fast as you can,” says the bride’s sister, Marina Lazzaro, 19. She was only half kidding.
Spectacular as the event is, this isn’t the biggest cookie table ever laid out at Bella Sera. For their daughter Beth’s reception on Jan. 2, 2010, Peg and Jack Lydic of Bethel Park tempted friends and family with some 21,000 cookies in more than two dozen varieties — or roughly nine dozen per guest, who stuffed them into 400 takeaway containers.
“And all of them were beautiful,” says event coordinator Michelle Houston.
With one more daughter and many nieces, nephews and cousins, the Lazzaros know this is not their last cookie table. Far from it.
“We keep saying as a joke that we want to do away with it, because it’s so much work,” says Mrs. Lazzaro. But everyone knows that will never happen.
“It’s a way of connecting with our Italian heritage,” says the bride. “It makes us feel even more Italian when we get together.”
Amaretti con Pignoli
Amaretti is the Italian name for macaroons. The perfect accompaniment for a cup of coffee or espresso, the cookies are crunchy on the outside, and chewy on the inside. This version is rolled in pine nuts.
- 2 cups almond paste
- 1 cup sugar
- 8 tablespoons flour (heaping)
- 3 egg whites
- Pine nuts
Cream together almond paste and sugar in food processor. Add 8 tablespoon of flour and 3 egg whites mixed together. Take 1 tablespoon full of dough and roll into ball (if sticky, lightly flour hands). Roll one side of dough in pine nuts. Place on parchment-lined cookie sheet.
Bake at 350 degrees for 10 to 15 minutes on top shelf of oven until golden brown. Cool on parchment paper before removing. The cookies can be stored in a container for up to 1 week.
Makes about 3 dozen cookies.
— Maria Lazzaro, Ross
- 1 3/4 cups flour
- 1/2 cup powdered sugar
- 2 tablespoons cornstarch
- 1 cup softened butter
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
- 1 cup pineapple preserves, divided
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 1 egg
- 1 1/2 cups coconut
- Powdered sugar for dusting
Preheat oven 350 degrees.
Make cookie dough: In a large bowl combine flour, powdered sugar and cornstarch; mix well. Add butter and vanilla, and stir until soft dough forms. Shape dough into 1-inch balls. Place balls into 36 miniature muffin cups. Press in bottom and up sides of each cup.
Make filling: Spoon 1 teaspoon pineapple preserves into each dough-lined cup. In a small bowl, combine sugar and egg, and beat with fork until blended. Stir in coconut until coated well with egg. Spoon 1 teaspoon coconut mixture over preserves in each cup.
Bake tarts for 23 to 33 minutes, or until light golden brown. Cool in pans for 20 minutes. Dust with powdered sugar.
Makes 36 tarts.
— Maria Lazzaro, Ross
This makes “a bucket” of cookies, but they freeze well. You also can store them in an airtight container for up to a month in a cool place.
- 2 pounds butter (8 sticks), softened
- 1 pound (2 cups) sour cream
- 10 egg yolks
- 3 teaspoons yeast, diluted in 3 to 4 tablespoons of warm water
- 8 to 9 cups flour
- 3 cups walnuts, ground really fine
- 1/2 cup sugar, plus more for rolling
- 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
To make dough, place butter, sour cream, egg yolks and dissolved yeast in a large bowl. Mix until creamy. Slowly add flour, mixing as you go, until you get a dough that is soft and elastic. Form dough into balls the size of pingpong balls. Place on cookie sheet, cover and refrigerate overnight.
To make filling, place ground walnuts, sugar and cinnamon in a bowl. Add vanilla, a little at a time, until the ingredients stick together in a paste.
Working with just 5 or 6 chilled dough balls at a time (the butter will cause the dough to soften if it sits too long on the counter), roll dough into small circles. Spread about 1 teaspoon filling in the middle of each circle, then roll up. Roll cookies in sugar, then arrange seam side down onto an ungreased cookie sheet into a horn (half-moon) shape.
Bake at 350 degrees for 15 minutes, or until cookies are golden brown.
Makes 70 to 80 cookies.
— Maria Tolomeo, Shaler